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'Year of learning': Candelario making steady gains at third, still grinding at plate

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Chicago — It was hard to tell who felt better about the play – the guy who made it or the coach who has worked tirelessly to get him to the point where he could make a play like that.

“Every time he makes a play like that, I feel good,” said Tigers first base and infield coach Ramon Santiago. “And when he doesn’t, I still feel good. He’s working very hard and he’s come a long from the beginning of the season.”

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Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario saved the Tigers a run in the second inning Tuesday night.

Center fielder JaCoby Jones and right fielder Nick Castellanos failed to communicate on a routine fly ball, which dropped for a two-out double by Jackson native Ryan LaMarre. On the next pitch, Adam Engel smacked a ball down the third-base line, a foot or so inside the bag.

It looked like an RBI double off the bat, but Candelario took a quick step to his right, dived across his body and snared it backhand. He got up and threw all in one motion to get Engel by a step. 

It was a play, even Santiago admitted, Candelario probably wouldn’t have made earlier in the season.

This 2018 Tigers season can be whatever you want it to be. If you aren’t buying in on the absolute necessity of a rebuild, this season has probably been irrelevant, irritating, galling even.

But if you, like the Ilitch family, general manger Al Avila and the Tigers front office and coaching staff, understand that the only way the Tigers can achieve sustainable success is through a full rebuild – then you can you maybe appreciate some of the growth that has taken place.   

Watch Candelario play third base these days and you most certainly can see growth. Especially in his ability to make plays going to his right and left. Later in the game Tuesday, he got the Tigers out of an inning the with a strong play on a ball hit to his left.

“We’ve been working every day, moving side to side,” Santiago said.

If you watch Santiago hit ground balls to Candelario during batting practice, he never hits them directly at him. He hits them to his left and to his right, every ball.

“I want to see how far he can go in practice, so in the game, he doesn’t have to think about it,” Santiago said.

Since spring training, the Tigers have worked with Candelario on his pre-pitch set-up. There were two issues – one was a matter of attentiveness, the other a matter of mechanics.

“He’s still working on it,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “One of his things is, he has his head down all the time. He’s always scratching around in the dirt rather than looking in and we’re trying to get his attention.

“That’s the biggest thing for him. He needs to focus on knowing which guys might bunt – he should know that before the game starts. We shouldn’t have to be yelling out to him all the time, ‘Hey, watch the bunt.’”

Earlier in the year, too, he wasn’t getting himself in position properly when the pitcher released the pitch.

“He was sitting too low,” Santiago explained. “He gets down too much, then you’ve got to come up and then go. Now, he is staying more in an athletic position so he can move and react to balls on both sides.”

Candelario doesn’t grade out spectacularly in terms of defensive metrics — but the numbers are a far cry better than before he took over the position. Using FanGraphs data, he is a minus-3 in defensive runs saved — sixth among everyday third basemen in the American League.

Castellanos, from 2014 to 2017 when he was the everyday third baseman, was a minus-64. 

Candelario's defensive WAR of 2.6 ranks fifth among starting American League third basemen.

There have been 251 balls hit into his area and he’s converted 167 of them (.665) into outs — that ranks eighth in the American League. Only the Yankees Miguel Andujar has a lower average zone rating.

He has made 96 percent of plays that FanGraphs deems routine and 81.5 percent of those that have a 60-90 percent catch probability.

“I think I have gotten a lot better and I know I still have to keep working,” Candelario said. “I’ve been doing a lot of things this year to get myself into a better position to move.”

He’s made 10 errors and only four of them are throwing errors. That’s another area of improvement. You don’t see him flipping the ball sidearm anymore, like he did frequently when he first took over the third base job last September.

“We got rid of that,” Santiago said. “I told him I don’t want to see that (sidearm flip). Move your feet, get set and make a strong throw.”

We’re talking about his defense, here, but his primary value as one of the young pillars of the rebuild, is his offense. And that part of his game is under some repair.

Seeing a .225 batting average next to his name looks like a typo —  especially after he closed out last season hitting .330 with a .406 on-base average and an .874 OPS in 106 plate appearances.

He was asked Wednesday, after a three-hit night that included his 17th home run of the season and a double, if he considered himself a .220 hitter.

“Never!” he said. “Everything can change in a couple of three weeks. I can get hot. I can get that (average) better.”

He was hitting .275 at the end of May. Since then, .197 with 94 strikeouts in 336 plate appearances.

“Sometimes good things don’t happen,” he said. “But you’ve got to keep trying to hit the ball hard.”

He was asked if it’s been disappointing for him the last three-plus months?

“No,” he said. “It’s just a year of learning for me. I am going to take advantage of these struggles and try to grow from it. I am going to come back next year and be better for it.”

The Tigers don’t doubt that for an instant. The one persistent worry, though, is Candelario’s left wrist. He has played through ligament damage  —Triangular Fibrocartilage Complex — all season. It put him on the disabled list for a stretch earlier this season, but the pain and discomfort comes and goes and he has never used it as an excuse.

Earlier in the year, the pain impacted him most when he hit right handed. But he’s hit better right-handed (.269 with an .808 OPS) than left-handed (.208, .680), although 11 of his 17 home runs have been hit from the left side.

The Tigers most likely will want Candelario to refrain from playing winter ball this off-season, to allow the wrist maximum time to heal before 2019. That will be a hard sell. He’s played winter ball in the Dominican every winter except 2016.

“I will take a little more time off,” he said. “But, maybe, for one month I will play (in the Dominican).”

On Deck: Cardinals

Series: Three-game series at Comerica Park

First pitch: Friday – 7:10 p.m.; Saturday – 6:10 p.m.; Sunday – 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: Friday-Sunday -- FSD, 97.1

Probables: Friday – LHP Austin Gomber (5-0, 2.77) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (0-3, 5.49); Saturday – RHP Jack Flaherty (8-6, 2.83) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (9-12, 4.24); Sunday – RHP John Gant (6-5, 3.19) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (3-10, 4.57).

■ Gomber, Cardinals: Since he joined the rotation in August, the Cardinals are 6-0 when he takes the mound. His ERA in those six starts is 2.45 and opponents are hitting .266 against him. Left-handed hitters are hitting 75 points higher against him than righties, and lefties are hitting his 93-mph fastball at a .382 clip.

■ Norris, Tigers: Making his second start after missing four months after groin surgery, Norris is looking to build on his strong 4⅓ innings of work against the Yankees. He allowed just one hit, a two-run home run, and struck out seven.